Packaging of Leftovers + Overworked Menu Descriptions

food packaging design leftovers

Over the course of a normal week, I read and scan 30 to 40 articles dealing with the restaurant industry: they range from food and labor costs, to location selection, menu structure, staff training, government affairs, and economic trends.

In addition, I speak to a number of people who are involved with the industry. Much of this constitutes the basis of the material that appears in my articles. I do, in many instances, voice my opinion on the subject at hand, based on more than 70 years in the business. For the record, I was a teenager when I first went to work in my family’s restaurant. This column deals with two issues: packaging of leftovers and overworked menu descriptions.

About 100 cities across the country have already passed legislation banning Styrofoam containers, including New York … and Washington, DC, could be next. I’m not going to deal with the cost impact affiliated with this legislation, but rather, some of the ways operators can use to handle leftovers and menu items to go.

I’m not sure when and where the practice of offering “leftovers to go” began. No matter, it is here to stay and even more so in today’s economy. In an article by China Millman of the Pittsburgh Gazette, he pointed out that “few restaurants seem to realize that the way leftovers are packaged and handled has a significant effect on the guest’s experience.” It is his opinion that unless someone requests otherwise, servers in full-service restaurants should pack up leftovers for the diner, and preferably away from the table.

One of the primary joys of dining out is avoiding the cleaning up. Watching someone scrape plates isn’t much more fun than doing it yourself. Most fine restaurants in Pittsburgh do package leftovers out of sight, but that doesn’t guarantee an elegant presentation. A plastic grocery bag and Styrofoam containers look out of place in an elegant restaurant, especially when they are plunked on the table while a group is lingering over coffee and dessert.

NYSRA March 2019 728×90

Even if the negative effect of poor packaging is slight, restaurants are missing an opportunity to leave diners with a positive impression, by servers marking to-go boxes with the name of the dish and the current date, and placing boxes in attractive brown paper shopping bags emblazoned with the restaurant’s name. People even reuse these bags, providing free advertisement for the restaurant.

Obviously, operators in any of the cities that have banned Styrofoam are changing the way they handle not only leftovers to go, but prepared meals for takeout. Here again is a chance to enhance your product and stand out from the competition. Think about it.

I do agree with Mr. Millman; I believe that taking the time to make the leftover package more appealing can have a positive effect on guests, not only when they receive it at the table, but when they open it at home. It could remind them of a pleasant experience at your restaurant. After all, they thought it was good enough to take home. You might even consider it as building goodwill after the sale.

In case you haven’t noticed, today’s consumers are more aware of the various aspects of eating out than any generation before them—from the quality of the food, to the ambiance, to what constitutes real value at every price point. They are also the most surveyed. Phil Vettel, restaurant critic of the Chicago Tribune, asked his readers to share with him their opinion of the most overworked descriptions appearing on menus.

The following are the top ten overworked menu descriptions:

  1. Grilled to perfection
  2. World-famous
  3. Homemade
  4. Hand-selected
  5. Voted Best Burger
  6. Caught this morning
  7. Death by Chocolate
  8. Mouth-watering
  9. Oven-roasted … and
  10. Cooked to perfection.

Mr. Vettel also reported that the question most often asked by a server is—you guessed it—“Is everything all right?” Does this sound familiar? If I may, I’d like to comment on the “Is everything all right?” line. In my view, when a server asks that question, it leaves the impression that there might be a problem. Instead, how about: “Is there anything else I can get you at this time?” One of the distinguishing characteristics of today’s consumers is that they will not hesitate to let you know when they are not satisfied. They will instantly share their dissatisfaction with a server and, if left dissatisfied, perhaps even share it with their friends on Facebook and other worldwide media.

Fred G. Sampson
Fred G. Sampson is the retired President Emeritus of the New York State Restaurant Association. He began working with NYSRA in 1961. Within the next four years the NYSRA more than tripled its membership and expanded from one regional chapter to eight. Sampson played roles in representing restaurants on issues including paid sick leave, minimum wage, liquor laws, a state-wide alcohol training program and insurance plans. Comments may be sent to